The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
Today, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) used a highly-promoted speech to call for a major tax bill in 2017. His message: “Transformational tax reform can be done, and we are moving forward.”
In fact, a major tax bill seems stuck in neutral. It remains in the legislative queue behind a troubled health bill and also must navigate a long list of distractions including a must-pass debt limit extension, spending bills, and the ongoing investigations of the Trump Administration.
But even beyond those political challenges, if Congress is going to pass any tax bill this year, much less the transformational tax reform Ryan promises, it inevitably must confront seven fundamental issues. In today’s speech, Ryan glossed over them all. But they are not going away. They are:
Tax cuts or tax reform? Will it be a tax cut and, if so, how much will it add to the budget deficit? Or will it be a reform that raises about the same amount of money as the current tax code? Congressional leaders seemingly have not decided. Neither has the Administration. Indeed, the president recently referred to “tax reform/cuts” in a tweet. Ryan conflated the two today as well. Until Congress and the White House sort this out, they’ll be wasting a lot of time.
How much money will the 2017 tax plan raise—or lose? Another way to think of the same issue. In the past, Ryan said he wanted a bill that would raise the same amount of money as the current revenue code, even though his 2016 plan doesn’t get there. But such a bill would inevitably create both winners and losers since tax cuts for some would have to be offset with tax increases on others--a politically risky proposition. Hill Republicans and the Administration seem increasingly comfortable with a bill that would add trillions of dollars to the debt over the next decade. And Ryan today seemed to focus on permanent tax cuts too. They would be much easier to pass, but would not be transformational tax reform.
What will happen to current tax preferences? Ryan’s 2016 blueprint and Trump’s many tax ideas have included broad promises to eliminate tax preferences for both individuals and business in exchange for lower rates. But they have never specifically said which tax breaks are on the block and what they’d do to them. In today’s speech, he vowed to “clear out special interest carve outs and excessive deductions.” It is not possible to know what that means.
Who would benefit from the tax changes? Both Ryan’s tax blueprint and Trump’s last campaign plan would cut taxes, on average, for people in all income groups. And both would cut taxes the most for the highest income individuals. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said a White House bill would tilt tax benefits to middle-income households. But he appears to have abandoned his promise that high-income households would get no tax cut at all.
Consumption tax or income tax? The House Republican leadership tax blueprint is a hybrid—an individual income tax with lower rates and fewer tax preferences and a business structure that moves in the direction of a cash flow tax (a form of consumption tax). The Trump tax outline looks more like a traditional income tax with lower rates. Which way will they go, and how far? They need to decide—soon.
How will they tax businesses? Will they settle on a single tax rate for all businesses, whether corporations or pass-throughs such as partnerships and sole proprietorships? How low can they get the corporate income tax rate? How will they treat US firms that buy or sell across borders? In last year’s tax blueprint, Ryan’s proposed a border adjustable tax but today he talked about a territorial tax system. They are not the same. Which does he favor? There are no easy answers to any of these questions.
How will they address the economic effects of a tax bill? Will Congress rely on a serious, independent analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation or adopt the Administration’s assertion that whatever tax bill emerges will increase the US economic growth rate from roughly two percent to three percent per year? The former would make a big tax bill more difficult. The latter would ease passage in the short term but leave deep scars in the legislative process—and likely add trillions of dollars to the debt when those assumed benefits don’t materialize.
Congress won’t pass a major tax bill of any kind until it confronts and resolves these core issues. Then, of course, it still will have to address hundreds of additional details. The substance of tax reform is hard enough. The politics is even tougher. It is increasingly difficult to see how it is going to happen in 2017.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.
Cliff Owen/AP Photo